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Sunni leader slain, insurgents in Iraqi uniforms blamed

BAGHDAD, Iraq — Gunmen wearing Iraqi army uniforms broke into the home of a senior Sunni leader Wednesday and killed him, his three sons and son-in-law, according to his brother and an Interior Ministry official.

Khadim Sarhid al-Hemaiyem, who lived on the outskirts of Baghdad, was the leader of the Sunni Batta tribe and the brother of a candidate in the Dec. 15 election, Maj. Falah al-Mohammedawi said. One of the slain man's brothers said the family has been attacked before.

"A group of gunmen with Iraqi army uniforms and vehicles broke into my brother's house in the Hurriyah area and sprayed them with machine gun fire, killing him along with three sons and his son-in law," said Nima Sarhid Al-Hemaiyem. "His eldest son was assassinated a month ago in the Taji area, northern Baghdad, when unidentified men shot and killed him."

Al-Mohammedawi said government forces were not involved and that the investigation was focused on insurgents.

"Surely, they are outlaw insurgents. As for the military uniform, they can be bought from many shops in Baghdad," he said. "Also, we have several police and army vehicles stolen and they can be used in the raids."

One of al-Hemaiyem's sons was a police officer, the other had recently quit the force.

The Batta tribe is one of Iraq's largest Sunni tribes from the area north of Baghdad. Dozens of people went to al-Hemaiyem's home, where the bodies were laid out and wrapped in blankets before the funeral.

The slaying follows a big push by U.S. officials to encourage Sunni Muslim participation in the election, which will install the first non-transitional government in Iraq since the 2003 invasion.

Some Sunni-led insurgent groups have declared a boycott of the election and have threatened politicians who choose to participate in it.

The Association of Muslim Scholars, a Sunni organization, called the slayings "cowardly." It also condemned the killings of a Sunni cleric and his brother in Khan Bani Saad, a town about 20 miles northeast of Baghdad.

Reading from a statement, association spokesman Abdul Salam al-Kubaisi said Iraqi soldiers had arrested the two men two hours before they were found dead and said he thought the troops were involved.

"We warn the government against continuing with this tyranny," he said.

In the mostly Shiite neighborhood of Sadr City in Baghdad, a group of gunmen blocked the road leading to the Communist Party's branch office Tuesday, just after the party began its election campaign, a statement said.

The unidentified men broke into the party building and killed two activists, it added.

"This cowardly act coincides with our preparations for the upcoming election and it targets the political process," the party said. "The government should bear the responsibility of providing the necessary protection in order to ensure a safe atmosphere for the elections."

U.S. and Iraqi troops launched an operation in predominately Sunni western Iraq on Tuesday to prevent insurgents from stopping the vote in that city, a U.S. military statement said.

The operation in Ramadi, 70 miles west of Baghdad, is the third in the city since Nov. 16. The operations killed 32 militants and seized and destroyed surface-to-air missiles, rocket-propelled grenades, mortar rounds, artillery rounds, hand grenades, small arms and bomb-making equipment, the statement said.

Meanwhile, a U.S. official close to the trial of Saddam Hussein and seven others for a 1982 massacre of 148 Shiites said the court expects defense lawyers to attend Monday's hearing, despite their threat to boycott the trial.

The official told a news briefing that the court has "standby" defense lawyers to step in if the defense team makes good on its threat to boycott the Nov. 28 hearing, the first since the trial opened Oct. 19.

The threat followed the assassination of two members of the defense team since Oct. 19. They have since demanded protection for themselves and their families, as well as a U.N. investigation of the killings.

In another development, a senior government official said a representative of an unidentified insurgent group responded to an offer by President Jalal Talabani to talk with those willing to lay down their arms.

Presidential adviser Lt. Gen. Wafiq al-Samaraei told Al-Jazeera television he had received a call from someone "who claimed to be a senior official of the resistance."

"I informed him that I would welcome him in a meeting to hear from him, but this doesn't indicate our acceptance of their demands," he said.

Al-Samaraei, a former head of military intelligence under Saddam, did not identify the caller, and it was unclear whether the overture represented a breakthrough.

Shiite government officials criticized Sunni-led insurgents, saying a legitimate resistance movement should not kill civilians or destroy its own country.

"We are tired of the slogans that call for the departure of the British and the Americans," Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari said during a seminar on an anti-terrorism law passed last month. "We are now under the umbrella of the United Nations. ... we should all work for tolerance and to strangle terrorism."